This past year or so has witnessed a rollout of liberal evangelical nonsense. Matthew Vines wrote his controversial God and the Gay Christian, which asserts that evangelicalism and the homosexual lifestyle are compatible. While Vines received a tome-length critique from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary crowd, he also elicited great praise from Rachel Held Evans, who has been championing revisionist sexual ethics on her blog for quite some time now.
In the meantime, more traditional Christians of all sorts have been able to reflect and intellectually stew on these new developments. I gained a sense of the conservative consensus when my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with links to this First Things article by Owen Strachan and Andrew Walker. Pastors especially have run out of patience for the crowing of the progressive evangelicals. Soon after, the energetic Strachan posted a piece investigating Evans’s feminist theology, which mimics the same theological blunders as the infamous Re-Imagining conference, the ghost of which haunts some Mainline Protestant halls to this day.
In addition, a large contingent of laity have joined in this critique in their individual blogs and social media channels. Of course, Evans has taken to Twitter to voice her frustrations, only to be joined by her fearsome band of followers. The whole issue seems to be at an impasse.
What is amazing is that Vines and Evans have little formal theological education and yet have widespread popularity, especially among Millennial evangelicals. As one of my friends pointed out to me, Evans in particular is the perfect writer for this low-attention-span generation which eschews dense reading and complex arguments. Young evangelicals have been raised in a culture that discourages good intellectual habits. Instead, they are informed by the blogosphere. Heaven help them if the truth is to be found on page 4 of a Google search. For the orthodox and revisionist-leaning alike, there are a plethora of amateur theologizers rather than theologians in American congregations today.
Even Ivy Leaguer Tony Jones has to play the game. Everyone has to in order to get readers. Thus, even his Kindle book on the atonement resembles a long series of blog posts rather than a thorough-going analysis of primary sources.
Vines himself provides the perfect example of this approach. He left his bachelor’s degree program at Harvard to study the issue of LGBT issues and the Christian faith. After two whopping years of research, he churned out a book that disagrees with two millennia of explicit church teaching on moral ethics. And the digital crowds roar.
Of course, letters from a degree don’t make someone right or any less of a fool. But we are starting to observe firsthand that the radical democratization of knowledge has led to what John Luckacs calls “an inflation of ideas.” Everyone has been given just enough knowledge and literacy to get them into trouble and yet none of the patience or discipline to get them out of it. Everyone with a blog or Twitter account can shoot out lots of small ideas that lack depth, grounding, and merit. Thus, American Christians are confronted with more and more theological ideas that have less and less worth.
Furthermore, there are no official channels to handle false teaching, only moral suasion. Reasoning and rhetoric outside conciliar and synodal settings have always been important features of Christian theology. However, theological ideas would meet with accountability under the auspices of diocesan bishops, synods, and councils. Today, most of the Evangelical Left aren’t built into any disciplined structure. They are perpetual digital gadflies. The only court in which to try them is the court of public opinion. There is no way to interact with them in an ordered, ecclesiastical manner. Everyone is doing their own congregational thing. Thus, conservatives and liberals have to yell at each other on the internet. This is a crisis of church polity that will not be easily remedied.
Contemporary American Christians are faced with their own creation. Their individualistic and democratic views idealize the religious entrepreneur. Moreover, their distrust of hierarchy and institutions combines with a lack of commitment to organic unity (this is a newer development).
The state of the divinity school doesn’t help matters, either. The seminary, in its classical form, is where one engages in deep, orthodox theological study under the authority and spiritual formation of the Church. Obviously, this classic ideal is increasingly rare in the United States these days. As history has shown, seminaries have abandoned orthodoxy, become hyper-academic without thought to spiritual formation, have been reduced to degree factories, or have removed the Church in favor of the parachurch or nondenominationalism.
Many American seminaries languish. Thus, the streams which should feed and guide the theologically curious are insufficient. Making matter worse, social norms encourage more trust in the internet than in the Bride of Christ. Instead, seekers look to ecclesiastically untethered and academically undisciplined smooth talkers for spiritual guidance and insight. Welcome to the Anti-Seminary.